Tuesday, November 11, 2008

why does nonviolent direct action work?

In the twentieth century, in case anyone had previously been in doubt, many movements showed that nonviolent direct action, used by individuals and groups, does in fact work to bring about the goals of the movement--that is, it works at least as often as wars "work" in achieving their goals.

I'm working on a paper for Religion & Society that addresses the issue of power within social systems. In traditional systems, power is based on continuing the status quo, but to the advantage of the one wielding the power. So the person or group holding power may change, but the way they attain and continue using that power is basically the same across time. In most social systems, power comes from being part of the society's elite, whether that is based on hereditary privilege or education and ability. (Really there is some of each in each system, because even in our system of democracy, those in power have the ability to be in that position, for the most part, because of the opportunities given to them by their social position as they grew up. This is not true for everyone, but is true for a fairly substantial part of the population. Also, in hereditary systems, one may always have one's title, but if one has no ruling ability or is too frivolous with money, one might lose one's position of power.) People continue giving these individuals power because that's how it has "always" been. Also, in many social systems, the religious establishment supports the status quo of the social hierarchy and vice versa. Therefore, the people in power are said to be there because of divine right. Those in religious power are there because they have received proper instruction from ancestors who have connected with God or the spirit world, and without mediation from those with this instruction, say the religious leaders, one cannot receive the necessary elements which will include one in the religious community.

Nonviolent direct action refuses to cooperate with this system. Most of us cooperate with the status quo because we don't see any alternative. This is how things are, and we believe the lie that the world is dualistic, is a place where we must choose a side between opposing views. But if we really look at things we can usually see that the two sides are more similar than different: in our country, Democrats and Republicans are so similar it is hard to tell the difference between them in many ways. They are enmeshed in a system that requires corruption, moral compromise, hurtful rhetoric against the "other" whether that other is another American politician or a political enemy of the USA, and a kind of power that says "might equals right." This political system--and most others--requires competition and vanquishing of one's enemies in order to show that one has what it takes to rule, and that this rule is justifiable because the ruler has the ability to protect those under him/her with one's superior power.

In contrast, nonviolent direct action must be a grassroots movement. It must give power to a mass group of people, and they must believe they have power to change the system. This power works as people refuse to believe the dichotomous lies of the traditional system, refuse to believe that to win another must lose, and people are convinced in an internal way rather than through external force. This kind of power appeals to the truth that is in each person: it appeals to the conscience. It trusts the other to have a conscience in there somewhere, even when all indications are to the contrary. It trusts in the humanity and value of the other, knowing that eventually through practice of the truth others can only make the choice to join in with the truth, or to act against their conscience in blatant ways.

Nonviolent direct action attacks symbols of hierarchical power, not people. The people are desired as friends, but the system is seen as the enemy. The people participating in the system are invited to join with the nonviolent actors in a search for truth, where they share the common enemy of an oppressive system and a common goal of searching for justice through the truth. This kind of power diffuses defensiveness and creates an opening for dialogue and reflection.

When Quakers refused to tip their hats to people of a higher station in seventeenth century England they were participating in what we now call nonviolent direct action. They were refusing to capitulate with a system of hierarchy so visible it was almost imperceptible. Rather than honoring some above others, they honored all. Although not tipping their hats might not seem like a huge overthrow of the system, it got at the root of the problem: it was a daily symbol of the social system's inequity. It also forced those in power positions to recognize their own inconsistencies. Those to whom hats were tipped thought of themselves as "gentlemen" or "ladies," people of refinement and civility. When hat honor was not given to them, however, they were faced with that inside themselves which they had been hiding: they found they were really prideful and did not think highly of themselves--they needed others to show them honor in order to feel good about themselves. This was not information they wanted to know about themselves--and I can empathize with them. I am the same way in many respects. They were forced to either recognize their shortcomings with humility, or fight for hat honor to reinstate their sense of self as substantiated by the status quo of seventeenth century English society.

I wonder what we could do today that would be similar to refusing hat honor? What symbols of the American hierarchy can we attack in ways that would appeal to the consciences and sense of justice inherent in people? Perhaps we should begin with ourselves. As an American, how am I cooperating with the status quo in order to continue receiving the comforts and status I have come to see as my due? How am I allowing myself to be deluded by the dualistic lies of the traditional status system, forgetting that our common enemy is injustice? How am I sacrificing my own comfort and status in order to work for the destruction of the symbolic system that holds people in a state of oppression?

Nonviolent direct action works because of each individual's willingness to listen in humility to the Truth found within. Quakers call this the Inner Light or the Light of Christ. Are we listening? Are we acting?



Anonymous said...

Cherice, what a great blog! I think we still do what we can for nonviolence--a lot of it is verbal action--but we are fully on board with Jesus' way. I was influenced by Gandhi, and extremely so by MLK. Thanks for challenging us again.

I suppose Barack Obama cannot be the ultimate spokesperson for nonviolent direct action, since he will represent millions of people who don't know Jesus, or don't sanction His nonviolence. I don't believe the Christian should force her/his will on the nonbeliever. We should be more like the early Christians who would die being nonviolent than the post-Constantinian nationalized church--therefore I think our nonviolent direct action must be our own, and should influence but not try to force our nation's nonChristians and violent Christians to be nonviolent. But I think we should try to influence Obama to be a witness for the love of Jesus, and carry it to the state as much as is possible.

Gr. Ralph

Barry Clemson said...

This is a great post. Very insightful discussion.

I believe we have to do two things at once. First, we have to work on ourselves so that we become truly nonviolent people. For me at least this has been so far a 45 year journey that was jump-started by participation in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer.
Second, we have to work on the world around us. I am convinced that most Americans are trapped in what I call the John Wayne Syndrome. This mindset says that one can fight evil (the way of the warrior) or one can submit to evil (the way of the coward) and there are no other alternative. Nonviolence is not a possibility for one caught in the John Wayne Syndrome.
My own work is to write fiction that illustrates the power of nonviolence. I am trying to be quietly subversive to the John Wayne Syndrome.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Cherice,

I think you describe nonviolent direct action, as a modern philosophy, very well. However, as described, it is not what the early Friends did, and this is very clear from the historical record.

The early Friends did not "refuse to coöperate with the system". There were specific points where they could not coöperate, because of their duty to God, but on all other points they coöperated, and they were outspoken and explicit about their desire to coöperate.

They wrote letters and open proclamations reaffirming their loyalty to the government. When the government did fundraising for the relief of people in distress, they gave above and beyond what they were asked. They took Christ's directive to render unto Caesar, and Paul's directive to be subject to the governing authorities and not resist authority, with utmost seriousness. Those who did not pay taxes were eldered and if need be disowned for it, which was a very different approach from what we see in liberal meetings nowadays.

All this is evidence that they were happy to coöperate with the system.

They did not "give power to a mass group of people", they gave power to God. Thus their decision-making was not by obedience to group consensus, as we see in so many Friends meetings today, but by obedience to the spirit of Christ as it manifested in Scripture and in their gathered meetings.

They did not "attack symbols of hierarchical power, not people". They showed respect and obedience to the offices of government: judges, Protector, Parliament and King; but they criticized individuals who did not execute the duties of those offices righteously. Their speeches and writings made it painstakingly clear that they were condemning the unrighteousness of individuals and not the offices those individuals held.

When they refused to tip their hats to people of a higher station, they were not "refusing to capitulate with a system of hierarchy". They were practicing obedience to God, who had spoken against vanity (a quite different thing from hierarchy), and who had, in their reading of Scripture and of their own hearts, commanded a different way of acting. They were perfectly happy to capitulate to the system of hierarchy on any and all matters not contrary to God's will, for example by going meekly and obediently to prison as they were told.

I apologize for contradicting you on so many points, but I feel these distinctions are important. Nonviolent direct action has its virtues, but it is not Quakerism as Quakerism was originally understood and practiced.

All the best,
Marshall Massey

Barry Clemson said...

Thanks, Marshall -- your comment was extremely helpful for those of us who are history-challenged (unfortunately that is most of us).

I want to make one small point of clarification. You properly point out that nonviolence and early quakerism are not the same. I want to note that the practices of early quakerism that you discuss are examples of nonviolence. While nonviolence tactics in todays world are often driven by practical considerations rather than spiritual ones, there is nevertheless a great deal of overlap between the practice of Quakerism (early or recent) and nonviolence.

Unknown said...

Hi Marshall,

Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that Quakers were not doing this as a form of protest for the sake of protest, but in obedience to God--but I think this obedience to God was something that required them to treat all people equally. They were quite happy to cooperating with the system of order, which they saw as the ideal for which their government(s) strove, but this did not mean cooperating with a system of unjust hierarchy. I see a difference between people being leaders, fulfilling a certain role, and people thinking because of this role they are better humans. Quakers are subject to those in offices which are just and help keep order and encourage human rights for all.

Even if early Friends did not do civil disobedience as a strategy to bring about social change as their first desired end, their obedience to God made this end possible.

Their refusal to tip their hats was an act of obedience to God, but it is still an example of how and why nonviolent direct action, as we call it today, can and does work, whether we do it in obedience to God or for practical purposes.

Thanks again for your comments, Marshall! I think they help me clarify what I'm trying to say, and I think we're saying the same thing: although early Friends didn't have social change as their goal, their actions can be emulated--and my query still remains: how are we doing similar things in our culture? How are we listening and trying to act in obedience to God in ways that may not be comfortable or popular, and that may bring about resistance from the established, hierarchical system? What are some symbolic acts we could do/refuse to do that would help us to live more obediently in relation to the injustice we see around us?

Anonymous said...

Hello, Barry,

You write that I "properly point out that nonviolence and early quakerism are not the same." In fact, I never made that point. Like our host Cherice, I was writing not about nonviolence, but about nonviolent direct action.

I don't wish to impose, but if you have the time, kindly look at what Cherice posted, at the top of this page, and what I posted in response, a little below, and verify that "nonviolent direct action" is what both she and I were writing about. Then take a careful look at the definition/description that Wikipedia provides of what the term "nonviolent direct action" means, here. I hope you will agree that "nonviolent direct action" is a different thing from simple nonviolence. Yes, the practices of early Quakerism — capital-Q, not small-q — were nonviolent. But they were not nonviolent direct action.

Cherice, I've read a lot of early Quaker literature, and I've never found any statement there about a "system of unjust hierarchy". If you can point me to such a statement, I will be grateful. If you cannot, then I ask you, please, to consider that you may be to some degree projecting certain twenty-first-century ideas and concerns back onto a seventeenth-century movement that did not actually share them.

So far as I can tell, the early Friends did not have a sense that "obedience to God required them to treat all people equally." The letters they wrote to their leaders Fox and Nayler are full of flowery, grandiose language that they did not use in addressing one another. After Nayler's fall, Fox visited him in prison and required him, Nayler, to kiss his, Fox's, foot. None of this was "treating all people equally". The early Friends were definitely committed to the humbling of worldly pride and worldly vanity, but that was not the same as the sort of across-the-board equality that the secular United States believes in today.

I would also ask, Cherice (if this is not asking too much of you), that you too look at the Wikipedia page I've linked to above, and then ask yourself if the early Friends' refusal to doff their hats (not a refusal to tip their hats, by the way) was really "an example of ... nonviolent direct action, as we call it today...." I'd be interested in your conclusion.

With respect and affection toward you both (and I hope that comes through, despite the disagreement!),

Anonymous said...


You are quite right according to wikipedia. I was ignoring the "direct action" part as unimportant.

I am not sure I can define what I mean by nonviolence to my own satisfaction but will try (I am going beyond what wikipedia says): Nonviolence is a way of waging conflict or a way of resisting evil that refuses to use violence and is based on love. This definition then puts most of the burden on the words violence and love. It is not adequate to simply say that violence is anything that causes pain or harm to another because real learning or growth often involves a painful shattering of illusions (Dying to ones illusions!). For example, the civil rights movement caused all sorts of pain and aggravation to the racists of Mississippi before that evil was finally overcome.

It also gets slippery to say that violence is defined by one's intent, i.e. it is violent to attempt to coerce or dominate another. This leads us to love. By adding in the notion that nonviolence must be based on love (rather than violence) I think I have a workable framework/definition.

Thus the examples that Cherice gave do fit within my understanding of nonviolence.

Unknown said...

Hey Marshall,

I did get your last comment--I don't have time right now to give an adequate answer. Maybe remind me over Christmas break...

But I guess the main thing I'm trying to say is that early Friends practiced nonviolent direct action even though that wasn't their purpose. Their purpose was obedience to God, but that led them to live in such a way that status hierarchies were broken down, etc. All people we equal, even if not all roles were the same. They had a healthy respect for government, for systems of organization, for "society," as their name suggests. But this was a society not based on some people being better than others, even if the system was hierarchical in some ways. This hierarchy did not extend to the persons themselves but only to the role, which others submitted to willingly because we need some system to hold us together, and some people to enforce it.

I think this is a pre-nonviolent-direct-action step, where they weren't consciously doing this but that was the effect that came about through their obedience. Now people practice this for the purpose of effectiveness, which is great--but I think you're definitely right that the goal of the early Friends wasn't effectiveness, but faithfulness.